FORT PIERCE, Fla. (CN) – With polls tight, Hillary Clinton on Friday headed down to Democratic strongholds in South Florida to shore up support in the battleground state.
Clinton held an afternoon rally at the historic Sunrise Theatre in St. Lucie County, focusing her speech on community service and highlighting plans to drastically increase the size of AmeriCorps, a government-supported civil society program set up under her husband’s presidency.
A large contingent of Trump supporters congregated near the theater entrance, chanting: “Hillary for prison!”
One Trump advocate held a sign proclaiming “Fact-checked: Hillary is corrupt.” His poster referenced a passage from the Book of Revelations: “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.”
Inside the renovated 90-year-old theater, Eileen Clark, a retired nurse who introduced the Democratic candidate, said Clinton’s policies will give Americans a chance to “fulfill their God-given potential no matter who they are or where they come from.”
“We are stronger together. We prosper together. And we share in the rewards together,” Clark said, reciting some of the candidate’s campaign rhetoric.
On taking the stage, Clinton briefly acknowledged the toxic algae crisis that plagued Florida’s Treasure Coast last summer. Linked to polluted, fertilizer-laden water released from Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers, the algae blooms have wreaked havoc on boaters, fishermen and coastal businesses, and have become a central environmental issue for voters in the area.
“This is a serious complicated problem for the entire Treasure Coast. And it is a reminder, if we needed it, how important good leadership is,” Clinton said.
Clinton then told the audience she wanted to take a break from political head butting with Trump, to focus on community service initiatives.
“Some might say, ‘Well hey … you’ve only got 39 days to go. Why aren’t you just out there beating up on your opponent and doing everything to get the vote out and all the rest of it?'” Clinton posited. “Well, I’ll do that, but … I did not want this campaign to end without talking about [this] because it means a lot to me. I’m trying to end the campaign focusing on issues that are really close to my heart — and this is one of them.
“First let’s triple AmericaCorps. That was the goal of my friend and the great Senator Ted Kennedy. It was laid out in a law named in his honor, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act,” Clinton said. “Every year, there are hundreds of thousands more applications for AmeriCorps than there are spots in the program. So if we grow the program from 75,000 annual members to 250,000, we’re going to give more people who already want to serve the chance to do so.”
She elicited the loudest cheers along with a standing ovation during a section of her speech about student loan forgiveness in exchange for community service.
“I know too many talented, committed young people pass up on serving with AmeriCorps because with their student loans, they can’t afford it. So let’s lighten that burden. If you do national service, we will begin a program to forgive your loans, because you are giving back to your country.”
Clinton said she also wants to double the amount of scholarships given to AmeriCorps members, who carry out community services including disaster aid, anti-homelessness programs, literacy campaigns and low-income healthcare assistance.
“Thirty-nine days left. This is the choice: do we lift each other up, or do we tear each other down? Do we listen and respect each other, or do we scapegoat, point fingers, and insult each other?” Clinton asked.
Outside the theater, on the streets of downtown Ft. Pierce, it appeared that the latter course of action was prevailing: namely scapegoating, finger-pointing and insulting. As the temperature crept up to 90 degrees in oppressive humidity, sweaty Trump and Clinton supporters yelled at each other throughout the morning and into the early afternoon.
Many of the Clinton supporters had been waiting in line since before 9 am to secure a place in the small theater’s audience.
Wearing a novelty top hat with an American flag design, the Trump advocate brandishing the biblical sign stood belly to belly with Democratic voters who in several instances hurled insults at him.
A pickup truck with an oversized campaign banner “All Aboard the Trump Train” strapped to its flatbed meanwhile circled the theater. The message was echoed by a woman walking with a toddler nearby. She screamed out that slogan shortly after her partner mumbled that the Clinton event was a “welfare rally.”
Tensions were high by all accounts: St. Lucie County is a battleground within a battleground, as Democrats’ margin of victory in recent presidential elections has been slimmer there than in generally more liberal, populous counties to the south.
In 2008 and 2012, President Obama won 55 and 53 percent of the votes in St. Lucie County, respectively.
Southeastern Florida, which contains the state’s three most populous counties Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach has been a reliable zone of support for the Democrats in recent elections.
Obama locked up Broward in 2008 and 2012 with greater than 67 percent of the popular vote. In Miami-Dade, home to more than 2.6 million residents, Obama won by healthy margins in both elections, with Republicans receiving less than 37 percent of the vote in 2012.
Palm Beach County has voted staunchly Democratic in recent presidential races, but Trump, who counts it as a part-time home, has expressed hopes of pulling off an upset. His sprawling Mar-A-Lago Club and estate sits next to a row of behemoth multimillion-dollar homes on Palm Beach Island, and his clout is heavy with some of the wealthiest, most powerful players in the area.
Trump will be banking on votes from rural and semi-rural counties in central and north Florida as well, to offset the Hispanic demographic in Miami and Democratic voting blocs from metropolitan areas in and around Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
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